Crucifixion became an important method of capital punishment in the Roman Republic from the 6th century BC and continuing for several hundred years after Christ’s death. This execution style was finally abolished in the Roman Empire, during the 4th century AD, by Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome.1
When first originated by the Persians, the idea was to suspend the victim to keep his feet from touching the ground.2 As Roman crucifixions evolved, there were several variations in cross construction — some with crossbeams, some without. Attaching the victim to the cross was done with nails or ropes, or both together.
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If using a crossbeam, the victim would be attached to the beam and raised horizontally into position on an upright post that was already in place; this was usually topped off at approximately three meters (9 feet) from the ground.3 Encyclopedia Britannica states that all victims were crucified totally naked,4 which would indicate that personal humiliation and family disgrace were part of the punishment process.
As I wrote in a previous related article, the word ‘cross’ is derived not from its physical shape, but comes from the Latin word crux, which refers to any construction of wood used to hang criminals as a form of execution. It was only later that a crux came to refer specifically to a contemporary cross. So historically, it matters not whether our Lord was actually crucified upon a cross-beamed structure, a pole, or a tree — any reference to such an instrument of execution as a ‘cross’ should be considered as accurate.5
While we are considering the historical development of a crucifixion-related word entering the English language, it is interesting to note that the word describing a pain as ‘excruciating’ comes from the Latin cruciō (crux + ō), which means ‘I crucify’ or ‘I torture’.6
The actual biblical accounts of Jesus’ death do not specify whether ropes or nails were used, but John explicitly states, post resurrection, that Jesus’ hands carried the mark of nails when the Lord visited the apostles.7
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” (John 20:24-25, NRSV).8
Not only does this add credibility about nails being used, but Jesus himself makes mention of the marks of the nails into his body in the next two verses.
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe,” (John 20:26-27).
These passages in the New Testament Gospel have led the tradition that Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross and have become the most familiar image to emerge from Christianity.9 And some researchers have found further evidence of these nails. For instance, the Gospel of Peter,10 a non-canonical gospel from the first or second century, specifically describes that after Jesus died, the nails were removed from his hands. “And then they drew the nails from the Lord’s hands and placed him on the earth. And the whole earth was shaken, and great fear came” (Gospel of Peter, verse 21, M. Mattison translation).
There is disagreement about those nails.
There are disagreements concerning the ‘holy nails’; that is the term used to designate the nails with which the Roman soldiers fastened Jesus to the cross.11 First, there is debate about how many nails were used: two, three or four. If a man was crucified on a single pole and the hands and feet were crossed, only two nails may have been used. Early historical writers implied that was all they used.
Art in the middle ages supported the use of four nails, but thirteenth century Western art presented ideas of three nails. Institutions (churches, museums) displaying supposed actual holy nails, vary in the number of artifacts shown, making the true quantity of nails used hard to determine.
And to even make this more complicated, there are nearly three dozen nails claimed to be used on Christ being displayed around the world. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Very little reliance can be placed upon the authenticity of the thirty or more holy nails which are still venerated, or which have been venerated until recent times.”12 And, with ongoing archeological digs, there are still more being claimed as holy.13
Since crucifixion was such a common type of execution for about one thousand years, nails are not hard to find. Such nails as used by the Romans were tapered iron spikes approximately five to seven inches long (13 to 18 cm) and had a flat-sided shaft.14
There is a second debate about the nails, too. It has to do with where the nails were placed in our Lord’s body, mostly those nails securing his hands. The argument is, were the nails put through his hands, or through his wrists? Indications in the Bible seem to support the hands, but medical science suggests it must have been the wrists. So, which was it?
Experiments were conducted with cadavers in the 1930s to determine if nails in the palms of the hand could support the weight of the upper body. Their finding was no; they could not. It was determined that only nails driven through the wrists could lend that much support.15 So, how do we justify the difference between scripture and scientific research?
After examining the Greek text, the answer to this problem is rather straightforward, according to author Rob Bradshaw. Quoting from the Nida & Louw Greek-English Lexicon,16 he writes that a hand or any relevant portion of the hand would be considered part of the hand. For instance, the fingers are considered a part of the hand, just as the wrist would be.17
Recently I overheard a conversation in a restaurant between two young ladies at a nearby table. While discussing a handsome waiter, one said to the other, “Well, I don’t see a ring on his left hand!” Of course, the implication of her meaning concerned no wedding ring on his ‘finger’. Likewise, we all know that a ‘wristwatch’ is worn on the lower forearm, near but not on the wrist. We only call it a wristwatch because it is worn near the wrist.
The point I’m making is that most people think of the parts of the hands to include the finger and wrist bones — all of the moveable bones after the forearm. I often say that God is not out to get us on a technicality, so we should not be nit-picky about what the common terms of anatomy included two thousand years ago.
I’m not the only one that thinks this way. One author stated this opinion quite well. “Many people think that the wounds in Christ’s hands must have been made in his wrists, that is, in the location most people call the wrist, where one might wear a wristwatch. This is a widespread misunderstanding. All eight bones of the wrist (the carpal bones) are located in the heel of the hand, at the part of the palm of the hand closest to the forearm. When medical experts claim that the nails of Christ’s Crucifixion must have been driven through his wrists, they mean the anatomical wrist in the heel of the hand.”18
How did they get Jesus down off the cross?
Some time ago, a Christian friend in the Boston area (USA) inquired about how the nails in Jesus’ body may have been removed. That is not as odd a question as you may think. Many people have expressed possibilities on the difficulty of removing our Lord’s body from his cross. Lacking direct biblical evidence of technique, we must speculate to some degree.
However, thanks to the Catholic Church, there is more specific information about removal of the body of Jesus from the cross. This comes from the recorded stories (or visions) of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774 – 1824), a Roman Catholic Augustinian nun in Germany. One vision was well documented by German author Clemens Brentano, who interviewed her at length.19 The following is what he wrote in describing the scene.
Nicodemus and Joseph place the ladders behind the cross and mounted, carrying with them a very long strip of linen, to which three broad straps were fastened. They bound the body of Jesus under the arms and knees to the trunk of the cross, and the arms they fastened in the same way at the wrists. Then by striking upon strong pegs fixed against the points of the nails at the back of the cross, they forced out the nails from Jesus’ hands, which were not very much shaken by the blows.
The nails fell easily out of the wounds, for they had been enlarged by the weight of the body which, supported now by means of the linen band, no longer rested upon them. The lower part of the body, which in death had sunk down on the knees, rested now in a sitting posture upon a linen band that was bound up around the hands on the arms of the cross.
While Joseph was striking out the left nail and allowing the left arm to sink down gently on the body, Nicodemus was binding the right arm in the same way to the cross, also the thorn-crowned head which had fallen upon the right shoulder. The right nail was then forced out, and the arm allowed to sink into the band that supported the body. Abenadar the Centurion had meanwhile, though with great effort, been driving out the enormous nail from the feet.
Cassius reverently picked up the nails as they fell out, and laid them down together by the Blessed Virgin. Next, removing the ladders to the front of the cross and close to the Sacred Body, they loosened the upper band from the trunk of the cross, and hung it on one of the hooks of the ladder. They did the same to the two other bands, which they hung on two of the lower hooks.
Thus with the gently lowered bands, the Sacred Body sank by degrees to where the Centurion Abenadar, mounted on portable steps, was waiting to receive it. He clasped the limbs below the knees in his arms and descended slowly, while Nicodemus and Joseph, holding the upper part in their arms, gently and cautiously, as if carrying a beloved and very severely wounded friend, came down the ladders step by step. In this way did that most sacred, that most terribly maltreated body of the Redeemer reach the ground.20
If one is not Catholic or lacks faith in that institution, it is understandable that not many would adhere to such a vision received more than a thousand years after Christ died. I understand that even the Vatican had some doubts.21 But the overall idea is reasonable.
Crucifixion nails were generally hammered not just into the wood, but completely through the beam and protruding out the other side. Generally, the tip would be bent, so it could not work loose because of the victim’s movements.
Considering the shape and length of the nails, it would be relatively easy to straighten any bent tip and then pound the nail back out from where it entered the wood. And since, unlike modern nails, they were tapered and square, each pounding outward would lessen the grip the spike had in the wood. Finally, the two, three, or four nails could then be gripped and pulled out from where they entered.
It was the dramatist Clemens Brentano’s book that helped inspire Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ.22 But keep in mind that we must examine the crucifixion scene through the eyes of the society and culture at the time. The deposition of Christ is many times depicted in movies, books, and art, and such scenes, over the centuries, have presented the event with much more artistic license than academic accuracy.
As an example, consider John the Apostle supporting a fainting Mary in the 1432 painting ‘The Decent from the Cross’ (a work by Rogier van der Weyden). Such artwork displays the culture and thoughts from the artist’s social time frame, rather than the culture and reality at the time of Christ.23
This study has been an investigation to appease curiosity, but although interesting, what really matters is the reason for Christ’s death, rather than the process involved. In the garden of Eden, something was stolen from humanity by an evil force: a perfect immortal life. And logically, there could only be one recovery price — another perfect immortal life — which could be considered an exchange in equal payment. It was Jesus who purchased back Adam’s perfect life by giving his own perfect life in exchange.
So here is something to think about. If Adam is deemed to have his perfect immortal life returned, it would be a retroactive correction and any imperfection in his DNA would be eliminated. Therefore, if our ancient human parents are once again found perfect, that should eliminate all the sin and imperfection handed down by heredity all through history. This retroactive act would eliminate all the sin we, and our ancestors, have inherited since the time of Adam and Eve.24
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Therefore Jesus came as a human “to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
The music selected for this study is ‘Nailed to the Cross’, by Rend Collective, a Northern Ireland Christian rock band. It was recorded in Vancouver, BC, Canada in 2017. Selected lyrics are below and a link to the music video is listed in References & Notes.25
When I stand accused by my regrets
I will preach the gospel to myself
That I am not a man condemned
For Jesus Christ is my defense
My sin is nailed to the cross
My soul is healed by the scars
The weight of guilt I bear no more
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord
Copyright © 2023, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- “Crucifixion”, (Encyclopædia Britannica, 28 July 1999), https://www.britannica.com/topic/crucifixion-capital-punishment/additional-info#history
- “Was Jesus totally naked when He was crucified?” (A Defence of the Bible, 15 August 2018), https://www.adefenceofthebible.com/2018/08/15/was-jesus-totally-naked-when-he-was-crucified/
- “Crucifixion” in Encyclopædia Britannica, (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 1962), vol. 6, p. 753.
- Hermann, Ray, “Crucifixion of Christ: Was a Cross or Pole Used?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 20 June 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/crucifixion-of-christ-was-a-cross-or-pole-used/
- “crucio” (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 December 2022), https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/crucio
- Hewitt, Joseph William, “The Use of Nails in the Crucifixion”, in Harvard Theological Review, (Cambridge MA: pub. on behalf of Harvard Divinity School by Cambridge University Press, 1 January 1932), vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 29-45.
- Unless otherwise stated, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989). Used by permission.
- Warren, M. J. C., “Was Jesus really nailed to the cross?” (The Conversation, 16 March 2016), https://theconversation.com/was-jesus-really-nailed-to-the-cross-56321
- Mattison, Mark M., “The Gospel of Peter”, (Gospel Net, retrieved 9 January 2023), https://www.gospels.net/peter/
- Schoenberg, M. W., “Nails, Holy”, (New Catholic Encyclopedia, on Encyclopedia.com, 21 December 2022), https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nails-holy
- Thurston, Herbert, “Nails, Holy” in The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church, (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1911), vol. 10, p. 672.
- David, Ariel, “Are These Nails From Jesus’ Crucifixion?” (Haaretz, 12 October 2020), https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/2020-10-12/ty-article/jerusalem-nails-jesus-christ-crucifixion-romans-caiaphas-tomb/0000017f-e579-da9b-a1ff-ed7f1cd90000
- “Did the crucifixion nails go through Jesus hands or wrists?” (Teachers College of San Joaquin, 7 April 2020), https://teacherscollegesj.org/did-the-crucifixion-nails-go-through-jesus-hands-or-wrists/
- Louw, Johannes P. & Nida, Eugene, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), vol. 1, p. 98.
- Bradshaw, Rob, “Where were the nail-prints in Jesus’ hands – in his wrists or his palms?” (Biblical Studies, 27 April 2009), https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/blog/where-were-the-nail-prints-in-jesus-hands-in-his-wrists-or-his-palms/
- Conte, Ronald L., Jr., “The Wounds in Christ’s Hands”, (Catholic Planet, 2000), https://catholicplanet.com/articles/article16.htm
- “Anne Catherine Emmerich”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 January 2023), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Catherine_Emmerich
- “The Removal of the Body of Jesus from the Cross”, from the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, [Our Lady of Sorrows, Sorrow #6], (Jesus Passion, retrieved 9 January 2023), https://www.jesus-passion.com/RemovalFromCross.htm
- O’Malley, John W., “A Movie, a Mystic, a Spiritual Tradition”, (America, The National Catholic Weekly, 15 March 2004), from Way Back Machine Archive – https://web.archive.org/web/20111005193623/http://americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=3481&comments=1
- “The Passion of the Christ”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 13 January 2023), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Passion_of_the_Christ
- “The Descent from the Cross (van der Weyden)”, (Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 June 2022), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Descent_from_the_Cross_(van_der_Weyden)
- Hermann, Ray, “What do you mean, Christ died for our sins?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 31 December 2017), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/what-do-you-mean-christ-died-for-our-sins/
- “Nailed to the Cross”, Artist: Rend Collective (Ireland, UK); Album: Good News, November 2017; recorded live in Vancouver BC, Canada; (licenses: UMG, BMI, Capitol CMG Publishing, others). Used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of the United States Copyright Act of 1976 — MUSIC VIDEO: https://youtu.be/GFLk6v7US3I